Who You Really Are
There is a puzzling and somewhat startling story in Acts 5:1-11 that is worth taking a longer look at. It is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who had joined the early movement of Jesus followers. This couple sold a piece of land that they owned, and brought some of the money they got from the sale to donate to the church claiming that it was the full amount they had received.
While husband and wife both arrive at the church gathering at different times, both of them immediately drop dead on the ground after reciting their scripted lie about how much of their money they had donated. Luke, the author, tells us that the church is gripped with great fear as a result of what happens.
Many people have found this story startling and worrisome. Will God just kill me if I don't give enough money to my church? More than that, would it be right to think that a God who is full of love and forgiveness would do this to people just for making a mistake? These are important questions for a particularly difficult story.
To understand, we need to backtrack to an earlier part of the story. In Acts 4:32, Luke begins telling us about the way that the early Christian church would share wealth among themselves. These Christians were totally united in heart and mind, and considered each other's needs more important than their own possessions. Many of them who were wealthier sold of properties and possessions in order to donate that money to the church, whose leaders would then redistribute the resources according to the needs that the people had.
This is where the problem arose for Ananias and Sapphira: they saw that their church community was thriving and growing because people were giving up everything - selling possessions and bringing the whole amounts gained to support the poor in the church. Ananias and Sapphira wanted in on this action - they wanted to look like they were being equally generous, but also to keep some profit for themselves.
We find it shocking that these two people died because of this. Maybe there have been times when we have failed to be generous when we could have been. In the book of James, it says "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them." (James 4:17 NIV) We may be frightened that some equally frightening judgment awaits us because some of our good deeds have not been good enough or because we spent time or money taking care of our own needs.
This is not the point of the story, however. The point is not that Ananias & Sapphira did not give enough money, but rather that they lied about it. We have to wonder if their problem was being greedy, or perhaps if their problem was wanting to look as good as other people in the church.
If we accept this second interpretation, we see some startling similarities to current Christian culture. Many of us put on a front or an act in order to seem more "holy". The issue is not being perfect - none of us are. 1 John 1:8-10 tells us that God prefers that we honest about how sinful we are than to see us pretend to be more holy that we really are. Being authentic and honest about where we are in our Christian journey is important, and Ananias and Sapphira failed to do this in a way that was emotionally manipulating poor people.
One of the key people in this exchange is Peter. This same Peter had once declared boldly that even if everyone else turned their backs on Jesus, he would never abandon his friend. Sadly for Peter, within only a few hours, he would deny that he even knew Jesus while he was put on trial for false charges. Peter had failed in the area of honesty before, and had wept bitterly because of it. After making this kind of mistake, Peter was serious about sincerity and congruity - making sure words and actions matched.
How honest are we? How often to our words and our actions match? What is our integrity like? Many of us may find that we are not doing as well as we would like. For many of us, the sinful nature is still alive and kicking inside, leading us to actions that are less than the best we could do. The Bible offers us both stern warnings in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, as well as the hope of grace and forgiveness. May we learn from grace and grow into better, more congruent people.
Why did Ananias & Sapphira die? Did God take their lives, or was it something else? What scriptures could you use to back up your answer? What reasoning can you give to explain your point of view?
Does God require all Christians to give us literally everything they own in order to be accepted? Read Acts 4:32-37 carefully again.
Read Leviticus 10:1-7. What can you learn about the Ananias & Sapphira story from the story of Nadab & Abihu? Are there any parallels? Why or why not?
What is the difference between Peter's dishonesty in denying that he knew Jesus, and Ananias & Sapphira's dishonesty in claiming they had donated more than they had? Is there a difference? Why do Ananias and Sapphira die, while Peter gets a chance at forgiveness? Consider also that Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus in some way (Luke 22:3-6, 21-23, 31-32, 47-48, 54-62; Matthew 27:1-10; John 21:15-19).
In Acts 5:3, we see Peter speaking of people lying to the Holy Spirit. What does this say about how the Apostles thought of this power? Was the Holy Spirit understood to be a person, a someone, or more of a something, like an impersonal force? See also Ephesians 4:30, John 16:12-15, 1 Corinthians 12:11, Isaiah 63:10, Acts 10:19-20.
What are important things we learn about the way the church worked in the early years of the Christian faith? How did they fund their needs? How did they take care of each other? Is this how your church works today? If so, how so? If not, how or why not? What are some things that your church does today to support it's own members, and other needy people in their community?